Friday, December 26, 2014

Wasting Money So Conservatives Feel Good

Any law stigmatizing the poor and reinforcing prejudices about welfare recipients is music to the ears of The Right. So a new state law, already shown to be a waste of money elsewhere, is being greeted with hosannas by Michigan Republicans including the Accountant who should know better.
The bills set up a three-county pilot program for drug-testing welfare recipients. Ask any conservative and they'll tell you that those huge welfare $350/month checks are being used to buy pot and crack instead of the Ramen noodles and peanut butter for which they are intended.
The Republican image of welfare recipients
Michigan tried this once before with a blanket demand that welfare recipients regularly pee in a cup. That law, like a similar law in Florida, was ruled unconstitutional because it conveniently ignored the constitutional requirement for "probable cause" before searching people. That includes using “an empirically validated substance abuse screening tool.”
So the new law mandates case workers to have reasonable suspicion that one of their clients is living the high life at taxpayer expense before mandating the tests. (The law, by the way, could ensnare people who are legally smoking marijuana for medical purposes. Collateral damage, however, is perfectly O.K. in the Cheneyesque world of "greater good".)
What constitutes abuse? Simply using a controlled substance, or exhibiting anti-social behaviors because of the drug use? How about alcoholism? Too much caffeine?
Most important, though, is what's the point?
Rick Snyder justifies that law, as he does many paternalistic "Father Knows Best" laws, as being in the best interests of welfare recipients.
"This pilot program is intended to ensure recipients get the wrap-around services they need to overcome drug addiction and lead successful lives. We'll then have opportunity to assess effectiveness and outcomes."
If the purpose is to save money by rooting out thousands of drug-abusing welfare cheats, it is probably a waste of money.

A seven-year study by the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan found that 16%-21% of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families had used illicit drugs in a 12-month period; about 3.5% had a drug dependence or abuse problem. Those numbers are somewhat higher than in the overall population as reported by the Centers for Disease Control. But both a Senate Fiscal Agency study and a short-lived mandatory testing program in Florida two years ago found no significant differences in drug abuse rates between welfare recipients and the general public.
Incidentally, amendments to the bills during debate to expand drug testing to others receiving state government money (like legislators) were defeated on voice votes.
Another problem: DHS caseworkers rarely see their clients, because their caseloads are ridiculously high. If they don't actually talk with recipients, how are they supposed to flag "substance abuse" using "an empirically validated substance abuse screening tool"?
The good news: it is a pilot program, so that multi-million-dollar cost of setting up a statewide program will be avoided once lawmakers face the ugly reality that drug screening welfare recipients costs more money than it saves.

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